“I’m reflecting on the pressure for men to conform to a certain body type. It’s external to me, and comes from the outside, the big ‘Other’ if you like, and i’m navigating my feelings around that.”
Interview by: Brooke Hailey Hoffert
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Where did you study?
I’ve always been interested in making art, but I didn’t originally anticipate an art career. I was a hairdresser, but I had a spinal injury when was 19, so I went back to college and did my A levels. Following them I did an Art foundation course at De-Montfort Uni in my hometown of Leicester. I then left Leicester to do my BA (hons) degree in Fine Art at the University of Reading graduating in 1999. There were lots of interesting people teaching there like Roger Cook who had been close friends with Patrick Procktor and Derek Jarman. Roger actually starred as Jesus in Jarman’s ‘The Garden’. Back in Leicester, I was a Jarman fan, so I loved listening to Roger talking about Derek, it made the person come alive to me. Then I went straight from Reading to Goldsmiths to do my MFA. I loved the structure of the course and the energy there.
After I left Goldsmiths in 2001, I had the opportunity to join Candoco Dance Company as a dancer. Candoco are the UK’s leading dance company of both disabled and non disabled dancers. It was such a great opportunity. I’d been doing several residencies and workshops with Candoco throughout the 90’s as a way to explore my physicality. In performing with Candoco, we formed such a strong bond working with choreographers such as Fin Walker and Stephen Petronio. We got to perform and do workshops in many interesting places such as Tallinn and Nairobi.
I did two seasons back to back and I really valued having that distance from my Fine Art degrees to figure out what I was doing with my art. I’d kept on my studio and was still going in and painting, so when I left Candoco I had a much clearer idea about what I was doing.
What drew you to becoming a portrait artist?
I think i’m more interested in the male body politic than portraiture per se. If I think about the various strands in my practice, my ‘Misfit’ paintings are more concerned with a collagist approach to figuration.
The other paintings I make, which are portraits I first made to interact with the ‘Looted’ collage, which I produced for a show at MOCA to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of my uncle, the playwright Joe Orton. For that show, I wanted to make portraits inspired by Patrick Procktor whose nude portrait of Joe hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. The paintings alone were not conveying what I wanted, so I decided to make the ‘Looted’ collage as an homage to the wall collage that Joe and his partner Kenneth Halliwell made from stolen library books in their Noel Road, Islington flat in the early 1960’s.
For my collage, rather than reproductions of paintings which they'd used in their collage, I wanted to instead use images of the gay men that had inspired me, and celebrate that. Joe had died before I was born, but he was also the first gay person I was aware of. I could relate to him in terms of my emerging gay consciousness growing up in the 1980’s, and I wanted to acknowledge that by making a collage which showed that contemporary gay lives grow out of a shared gay history.
The paintings I then placed upon the collage, so that they would interact with the collage and throw the images into further question. I wanted the paintings to be of men in various states of undress, as for me they’re about how, for many gay men their body is their currency. The images I used I took from the internet or men’s lifestyle magazines. It was important to me that the images already circulated in popular culture and that they constituted an ‘ideal’ in terms of desire. I’m appropriating that imagery, and in that way the finding becomes about ownership. I refer to these as my 'Other' paintings.
In what ways does your practice explore the process of becoming?
Primarily i’m interested in investigating masculinities in my paintings, by drawing from popular culture. I don’t tend to work from life as i’m really fascinated by how masculinities are presented in mass-media.
In that regard, I don’t see masculinity as this solid, immoveable construction and that’s reflected in my ‘Misfit’ paintings. I want something that is suggestive of the repeated process of identity formation. A fluid performative process with a multitude of subject positions, shifting identification from one fragment to another. It’s rhizomatic in that sense.
In assembling men from these different fragments, for me it’s also about the articulation of difference. I want the figures in the paintings to be destabilising and contested, keeping things in play. I’m more interested in asking questions than providing answers. The ‘Misfits’ are caught in a moment of flux, and the collagist element gives them a certain vulnerability. I’m asking what it means to be a man today.
Tell us a bit about how you spend your day / studio routine? What is your studio like?
My studio is an Acme one in Mile End. I have a big studio that overlooks Mile End stadium. As a wheelchair user the studios are a godsend really because the building is fully accessible. I go in with my partner Stephen who also has a studio there. Next month we’re moving in to a dual studio which will suit us both better going forward.
I prefer to work on one thing at once and get that done. I get a bit confused if I have several things going on at a time. To make my big paintings I have a standing wheelchair which is great as I get to have a good stand as well as doing some painting. Having a disability means I need to be flexible in my approach, sometimes i’m not able to make big paintings so i’m always mixing it up in terms of scale.
Do you consider your art to be Queer Art?
I do, but then it also doesn’t define the parameters of my art. It’s a political, and cultural term, a reappropriation of a slur. My art is in parts an articulation of the experience of being gay, and particularly with the ‘Looted’ collage identifying with gay men who shaped the 20th century such as Jean Genet, and drawing from that past history. The perspectives on that history are constantly changing, and in that sense there’s a contingency about it.
That displacement feeling of ‘otherness’ that gay people can experience, being a wheelchair user it compounds that feeling further, so being queer in that sense is very much a lived experience.
There is also a self-consciousness in that with the direct portraits which i’m making now. Whether the paintings are derived from male models in magazines, or from real gay men who use instagram to display their ‘perfect’ bodies.
I’m reflecting on the pressure for men to conform to a certain body type. It’s external to me, and comes from the outside, the big Other if you like, and i’m navigating my feelings around that. It’s like RuPaul says in the Drag Race “If you can't love yourself, then how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”’
It’s an interesting time to be gay. For the first time we are in an era where we are far more accepted, and we can make art of that experience that celebrates life rather than death. When I was growing up there was a whole generation of people that were lost to AIDS. Consequently that experience and the radical spirit they fostered has also largely disappeared from view. With these new found freedoms though, we should never take anything for granted. Just from looking at the current political climate, it’s obvious our fought for liberal values are already being eroded.
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?
I’m still thinking about the Soutine portraits show at The Courtauld that was on earlier this year. The paintings are so forceful, the way he paints. I liked how it just focused on his portraits. They were often not named as individual people but to their trades; a pastry cook, a waiter or a bellboy. I loved them all. I’d seen one of the bellboys in the collection downstairs in the l’Orangerie in Paris a couple of years ago, but here they had them all together. It was great. He was so brilliant with colour, and with paint handling. They have the most weird goofy expressions and contorted bodies.
I also loved Kaye Donachie’s show ‘Silent as Glass’ at Maureen Paley. The title painting in particular had this intense mystery about it. I love her subject matter, I always wonder who they are these poets she depicts from the 20th century. There were also these wonderful flower still lives and on the back wall a site-specific wall covering of moons in silhouette with a painting of a women's head looking downcast. Donachie’s so deft. I think she gets better and better.
How do you go about naming your work?
Usually I want to draw attention to the fact that the subjects are not known to me, so it becomes about a type. I’m objectifying in that sense. To underscore this I often use titles which refer to the underwear the subjects are wearing such as ‘Blue Boxers’, ‘Red Briefs (Garden)’ or for instance, ‘Tetu’ after the french gay magazine I found the image in.
It’s similar with the Misfit paintings. I usually build them up around an idea of something to do with desire such as ‘Misfits (Eros)’, or to the process of cutting and reassembly such as ‘Misfit (Slice)’.
With my ‘El Muniria’ painting which is currently in the John Moores Painting Prize, that was a specific place which had a certain notoriety about it. It was a haunt of the Beat Generation and William S Burroughs wrote ‘Naked Lunch’ there. I was interested in the still problematic history of queer Tangier and it’s associations of colonialist sex tourism.
Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
I’ve been invited to contribute to ‘Centrefold 10’. It’s an artists scrapbook project initiated and run by Reza Aramesh. I’ve followed it for years, so I was really pleased when I was asked to contribute. It’s for the 10th anniversary special issue, and there’s always contributions from really interesting artists, and this one features contributions from amongst others Anne Ryan, Peter Davies and Nick Rea. My pages will feature the ‘Looted’ collage. I’d shown various incarnations of it over the past 18 months, so it felt like a great opportunity to include it. So many of my heroes were in the collage. It was perfect for them to go back into being centrefolds again. It launches later this month.
Also in October, i’ve been invited by Rosalind Davis to exhibit work in a group show ‘Rules of Freedom’ at Collyer Bristow Gallery. For this, i’m showing new paintings and a site-specific vinyl collage. When I’d shown the ‘Looted’ collage before, each time I made it, I created it afresh with new images, so that it always evolved and mutated. With this in mind, i’ve turned my focus to the heads in Rodin’s ‘Burghers of Calais’. Where before they provided a surrealist and decorative element in the ‘Looted’ collage, here they have multiplied and taken over. It’s a political show and the burghers here represent (for me) the idea of freedom from oppression. It runs from October until February, 2019.
Publish date: 02/10/2018
All Images are courtesy of the artist